Sholom Aleichem 1859-1916
(Also transliterated as Sholem-Aleykhem; pseudonym of Solomon Rabinowitz, also transliterated as Rabinovich, Rabinovitsh, and Rabinovitch) Ukrainian-born Yiddish short story writer, novelist, and dramatist.
One of the founding authors of Yiddish literature, Sholom Aleichem's reputation is based primarily on humorous short stories, such as those adapted for the musical Fiddler on the Roof, in which he depicted the Jewish Pale of Settlement, those areas in Russia to which Jews were restricted during the nineteenth century. While other Russian Jews of his era wrote in either Hebrew or Russian, Sholom Aleichem chose to write in Yiddish, a language spoken by eastern European Jews that is derived from High German but usually written with Hebrew characters. His stories reflect the determined optimism and faith of Jewish people amid poverty and persecution, bringing humor to this grim setting through absurd situations and revealing monologues. Sholom Aleichem used the literary forms of the monologue and the epistle to present his characters in their own idiom with no intervention from a narrator, a method that led to his fame as the "folk voice" of Ukrainian Jewry.
The son of a prosperous, educated merchant, Sholom Aleichem was born in the Ukrainian city of Pereyaslav and spent his early years in a shtetl, a small, impoverished Jewish community that functioned much like a medieval town. His early proclivity for writing so impressed his father that he sent him to a Russian secondary school, where he would receive a secular education, rather than to a yeshiva, the traditional Jewish religious academy for advanced studies. After graduation, Sholom Aleichem moved to Kiev and took a job as a government rabbi and began to publish articles in Hebrew and Russian on educational and liturgical reform. Wanting to reach the large audience of shtetl Jews who could not read Hebrew, he decided to write in Yiddish, a language then derided by educated Jews. Protecting his professional reputation by adopting the pseudonym Sholom Aleichem (a Hebrew greeting meaning "peace be with you"), he published his first short story, "The Two Stones," in 1883. Over the next few years, Sholom Aleichem wrote critically acclaimed short stories and several novels, hoping to provide more serious and artistic examples of Yiddish writing in contrast with the frivolous romances that prevailed in Yiddish literature of that time. Having established himself as a respectable Yiddish author, he encouraged other Yiddish writers by founding and editing Di yidishe folksbiblyotek, an annual devoted to Yiddish literature.
Throughout the 1890s, Sholom Aleichem wrote stories incessantly. The immensely popular Tevye stories and Menachem Mendl series date from this period, and their success gave Sholom Aleichem's family enough security to enable him to devote himself entirely to writing. In 1905 pogroms, in which thousands of Jews were massacred, forced the family to flee into exile. Despite his immense popularity, Sholom Aleichem soon found himself in financial trouble. Having sold his copyrights to unscrupulous publishers years before, he received no royalties from the sales of his works. He traveled constantly, giving lectures and readings in Europe and America, until he collapsed from tuberculosis in Russia in 1908. While Sholom Aleichem recovered in Italy, unable to pay his debts, some friends raised money by sponsoring a twenty-fifth anniversary jubilee in honor of his first story. They received donations from all over the world and arranged to reclaim his copyrights from publishers. Financially secure and having recovered his health by 1913, Sholom Aleichem resumed his lecture and reading tours. However, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 drove him and his family once more into exile. They moved to New York, where he died in 1916.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Sholom Aleichem's fame rests primarily on his short stories, which were among the first Yiddish works to be accepted as serious literature. In their detailed representation of shtetl life, these stories successfully reflect the chaotic world of eastern European Jews. As well as documenting the Jews' daily suffering from hunger and persecution, he addressed the problem of changing values among the younger generation, particularly their increasing secularization and disregard for tradition. Sholom Aleichem's stories never follow a conventional plotline: they begin in the midst of trouble, more disasters occur, then they break off without resolution. However, instead of focusing on the disruption and calamity that provide much of the substance for his short stories, he maintained a tone of humor and optimism. For example, Tevye the dairyman, one of Sholom Aleichem's most popular characters, distracts the reader from the tragedy of his stories through his audacious challenges to God and his humorous misquotations of religious verses. Menachem Mendl, the fast-talking dreamer who fails in every business venture he attempts, amuses the reader with his outrageous plans and his frenzied pace. Presenting himself as a listener in his stories and allowing his characters to speak without authorial intervention, Sholom Aleichem added to the humor by having his characters inadvertently reveal their attitudes and faults.
Despite the careful craftsmanship of Sholom Aleichem's narratives, the naturalness of his characters' speech and the accuracy of his descriptions of shtetl life led to his initial reputation as simply a "recorder" of Jewish life. Early critics focused on the cheerfulness of the characters, on their "laughter through tears" as a way of coping with the endless adversity in their lives. More recent critics have noted a tragic side to Sholom Aleichem's stories, maintaining that his works inspire sympathy as well as laughter. Significant change has occurred in the critical estimates of Tevye: once seen as a cheerful but naïve character who inadvertently misquotes scripture through his ignorance, he has recently been described as a perceptive man who consciously manipulates religious quotations to comment on his life and on God. While Sholom Aleichem's writing is now considered more complex than it was previously, his importance as a founder of Yiddish literature has never been disputed. Likewise, critics and readers have consistently appreciated the humorous and poignant stories in which he masterfully evoked the resiliency and hopefulness of shtetl Jews.
Tevye der milkhiger [Tevye's Daughters] 1894
Menakhem-Mendl [The Adventures of Menakhem-Mendl] 1895
Mottel Peyse dem khazns [Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son] 1907-16
The Old Country 1946
Inside Kasrilevke 1948
Stories and Satires 1959
Old Country Tales 1966
Some Laughter, Some Tears 1968
The Best of Sholom Aleichem 1979
Holiday Tales 1979
Other Major Works
Stempenyu [Stempenyu] (novel) 1889
Yosele Solovey (novel) 1890
Tsezeyt un tseshpreyt (drama) 1905
In shturm (novel) 1907
Samuel Pasternak (drama) 1907
*Stempenyu (drama) 1907
Blondzhnde shtern [Wandering Stars] (novel) 1912
Shver tsu zayn a yid (drama) 1914
Dos groyse gevins (drama) 1916
Ale verk fun Sholom Aleichem. 28 vols. (short stories, novels, dramas, and unfinished autobiography) 1917-25
The Great Fair (unfinished autobiography) 1955
*This work is an adaptation of the novel...
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SOURCE: "Sholem Aleichem: A Typology of His Characters," in Prooftexts, Vol. 6, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 7-15.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1908, the critic examines prominent character types in Sholom Aleichem's stories and how they reflect Jewish reaction to life in exile.]
Sholem Aleichem is one of the fortunate Yiddish writers who does not have to wait for an anniversary celebration to publicize his name among the broad masses of our people; his name was a household word before the critics even began to take notice of him. It was not unusual for an entire town to wait with baited breath for a new issue of Der yid in which Sholem Aleichem, with a broad grin, lambasted a certain class of speculators and stock market sharpies. Among the folk, there is hardly a celebration or gathering where the guests are not asked: "Would you care to hear some Sholem Aleichem read aloud?" as one would offer a good glass of wine with a piece of cake. The folk has long since discovered the delicious flavor of Sholem Aleichem's works. Thanks to this Jew from Volin, the saddened, oppressed people, with its embittered heart and caustic tongue, has learned how to laugh.
And this is no small achievement. Laughter means the ability to see oneself and the world through the eyes of a stranger, to free oneself momentarily from the material world, from the "ego," and...
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SOURCE: "On Sholem Aleichem's Humor," in Prooftexts, Vol. 6, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 41-54.
[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in 1941, Wiener discusses Aleichem's unique brand of humor.]
The Victory over Human Fear
Brave children, when fearful upon entering a dark room at night, sing cheerful songs to themselves. Like most metaphors, this one is only partially applicable, but there is a kind of humor that depends, in part, on this sort of spunky singing in the dark. So too, in Sholem Aleichem's humor we find not only laughter and tears, but the sort of merriment that comes from having overcome and tamed the fear of chaos, the fear of a maimed, confused and falsely-ordered life. This conquest of fear of the tragic in life ennobles and deepens humor, lending it an aspect of nobility.
Sholem Aleichem presented the poverty of the great masses of Jews in the shtetl and the city during the period of imperialistic capitalism, but without yielding to the spirit of depression and lament. When Motl Peysi's impoverished family reached the point of having to sell all of its possessions, Sholem Aleichem had Motl describe this in the following way: "Of all the household things we sold, none gave me more pleasure than the glass cupboard." After this cupboard was sold, there were some "technical problems" in removing it from the house. Motl says: "For...
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SOURCE: "Sholom Aleichem: The Old Country," in Contemporaries, Atlantic-Little, Brown & Company, 1962, pp. 271-78.
[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in 1956 as an introduction to Selected Stories of Sholom Aleichem, Kazin assesses Aleichem's treatment of Jewish people and the Yiddish language.]
The way to read Sholom Aleichem is to remember from the outset that he is writing about a people, a folk: the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe. There are a great many Jews and non-Jews who resent the idea that the Jews are a people, for they...
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SOURCE: "Sholom Aleichem: Voice of Our Past," in his A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics, Horizon, 1963, pp. 207-15.
[In the following excerpt, Howe discusses Aleichem's significance within the Jewish literary tradition, asserting 'He is, I think, the only modern writer who may truly be said to be a culture-hero. "]
Fifty of sixty years ago the Jewish intelligentsia, its head buzzing with Zionist, Socialist and Yiddishist ideas, tended to look down upon Sholom Aleichem. His genius was acknowledged, but his importance skimped. To the intellectual Jewish youth in both Warsaw and New York he seemed old-fashioned, lacking in complexity and rebelliousness—it is even said that he showed no appreciation of existentialism. . . .
The conventional estimate—that Sholom Aleichem was a folksy humorist, a sort of jolly gleeman of the shtetl—is radically false. He needs to be rescued from his reputation, from the quavering sentimentality which keeps him at a safe distance.
When we say that Sholom Aleichem speaks for a whole culture, we can mean that in his work he represents all the significant levels of behavior and class in the shtetl world, thereby encompassing the style of life of the east European Jews in the nineteenth century. In that sense, however, it may be doubted that he does speak for the whole shtetl culture. For...
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SOURCE: "Stories for Jewish Children," in Sholom Aleichem: A Non-Critical Introduction, Mouton, 1974, pp. 143-60.
[In the following essay, Gittleman examines Aleichem's portrayals of Jewish mothers and sons in his short fiction and finds similarities in Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint.]
"If only you realize what we're doing for you. Do him a favor and he doesn't appreciate it. Don't jump, don't run. Walk like a human being."
—Mother to her child in "The Ruined Passover"
1. PORTNOY IN KASRILEVKE
It may seem somewhat strained . . . to make reference to a rather sensational bestseller in America which appeared in 1969, but, for better or worse, there is no denying that Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint1 has a certain attraction to the student of Sholom Aleichem who has had the opportunity to consider the image of the Jewish child, particularly the son, in the collected works. Roth's now infamous hero, Alexander Portnoy, is the ne plus ultra of Jewish sons, or at least that is his own opinion of his situation. In the novel, Portnoy is going through analysis with a psychiatrist, in an effort to explain his particular neurosis. He has all sorts of problems, some sexual, some social, but all, he claims, have their roots in the same source: his mother. Portnoy (and Roth)...
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SOURCE: "The Speaking Voice," in Sholom Aleichem, Twayne Publishers, 1977, pp. 95-124.
[Frances Butwin is a Polish-born American translator and critic. With Julius Butwin, she selected and translated a collection of stories by Sholom Aleichem, which was published in 1946 as The Old Country. She has since translated several other volumes of Sholom Aleichem's works. Joseph Butwin is an American educator and critic who has published articles on English, French, and Yiddish literature. In the following essay from their biographical and critical study of Sholom Aleichem, the authors explore Aleichem's use of skaz—the spoken tale—and compare it to American examples from Mark Twain and Ring Lardner.]
In his essay on Nikolai Leskov, Walter Benjamin describes the historical process that "has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing."1 The printing press and the vast expansion of its use along with other advances of industrialism had already made storytelling obsolete along the Atlantic fringe of Europe and North America toward the end of the nineteenth century. On the fringes of this world, in Russia and in frontier America, several writers found ways of telling stories in print without losing the charm of "living speech." Benjamin discusses Leskov. Mark Twain is another...
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SOURCE: "Voices of Ambivalence in Sholem Aleichem's Monologues," in Prooftexts, Vol. 1, No. 2, May, 1981, pp. 158-71.
[In the following essay, Wirth-Nesher discusses the paradoxical nature of the monologue form in Aleichem's short fiction.]
It is generally recognized that Sholem Aleichem's success as a writer rests upon an almost mystical intermingling of laughter and trembling, the combination of traits that Bellow singled out as characteristic of Jewish literature in general.1 Since the appearance of his fiction in the 1880s, generations of readers have been asking themselves just how Sholem Aleichem manages to both move and amuse them simultaneously. A quick review of his most memorable characters—Moti the cantor's son, Tevye the dairyman, Menakhem-Mendl the luftmentsh—demonstrates that the human voice is the medium of his great achievement, for in spoken language he found his vehicle for expressing Jewish life in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century.2 The best works of Sholem Aleichem are his first person addresses, sometimes delivered directly to the mediator-author seated in a third class train compartment or under a tree, or written compulsively to an unreceptive wife. In all cases, the variety and perfection of idiosyncracy in each individual voice earn our admiration. It is the monologue, therefore, that gives shape to all of his work and any attempt to...
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SOURCE: "'Don't Force Me to Tell You the Ending': Closure in the Short Fiction of Sh. Rabinovitsh (Sholem-Aleykhem)," in Neophilologus, Vol. LXVI, No. 1, January, 1982, pp. 102-10.
[In the following essay, Miller considers the problematic endings of Aleichem's short fiction.]
The nonspecialist (I shall use a none-too-hypothetical undergraduate student as example) comes to the works of Rabinovitsh unaided by a sense of the world, or rather worlds, portrayed in his fictions: holidays, rituals, customs, folkways—the common cultural coin of Eastern European Jewry—all must be glossed and explained. If the student comes to these texts unaided, however, he or she also comes unburdened: the name Sholem-Aleykhem no longer conjures up visions of the public persona which Rabinovitsh labored so long to establish—the genial, wise, invariably middle-aged folk humorist and consoler of his people. To the contemporary student, the stories are but stories, to be approached with the same attitudes and with the same critical tools as any others; and Sholem-Aleykhem is but a name.
However distressing this state of affairs must be to the committed advocate of Yiddish culture (and I, for one, find it very distressing indeed), it does, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, lead to more sophisticated readings of the stories themselves. This occurs in several ways: first, the student is unaware that...
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SOURCE: "Authorial Voice in the Kasrilevke Stories," in Author as Character in the Works of Sholom Aleichem, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1985, pp. 73-99.
[In the following excerpt, Aarons examines the defining characteristics of Aleichem' s shtetl stories.]
At the heart of Sholom Aleichem's short stories, monologues and feuilletons lies Kasrilevke, the fictionalized shtetl, representative of the small villages at the outskirts of the cities where Jews were forced to live. In one of the Kasrilevke stories, "The Town of the Little People," Sholom Aleichem explains the origin of the name, Kasrilevke:
The town of the little people into which I shall now take you, dear reader, is exactly in the middle of that blessed Pale into which Jews have been packed as closely as herring in a barrel and told to increase and multiply. The name of the town is Kasrilevka. How did this name originate? I'll tell you:
Among us Jews poverty has many faces and many aspects. A poor man is an unlucky man, he is a pauper, a beggar, a schnorrer, a starveling, a tramp, or a plain failure. A different tone is used in speaking of each one, but all these names express human wretchedness. However, there is still another name—kasril, or kasrilik. That name is spoken in a different tone altogether, almost a bragging tone. For instance, "Oh, am I ever a...
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SOURCE: "The Divine Humor of Sholom Aleichem," in Judaism, Vol. 35, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 391-401.
[In the following essay, Goldsmith contends that Aleichem's "humor is a unique phenomenon in the history of Jewish culture and a surprising mutation in the evolution of the Jewish spirit."]
The basic attitude of traditional Judaism towards humor is expressed in the Talmudic injunction that "it is forbidden to make fun of anything except idolatry."1 It was the ethical earnestness, ritual strictness, other-worldliness and asceticism of the Talmud, the Midrash and later rabbinic literature which set the tone for Jewish life until modern times. Despite the fact that the Talmud and Midrash contain a few humorous attacks on super-piety and overzealousness in the interpretation of Scripture and tradition, the rabbis knew that humor could also be used against their own religious teachings and, consequently, they opposed it.2
In the Middle Ages, rabbis sought to restrict revelry on the merry festival of Purim as well as at weddings and other celebrations.3 For many centuries they also opposed the establishment of the happy Simhat Torah holiday as a recognized festival. The revelry permitted in the Christian world probably smacked too much of paganism for them to seek to emulate it in the Jewish community.
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SOURCE: "Sholem-Aleykhem's 'Stantsye Baranovitsh'," in Identity and Ethos: A Festschrift for Sol Liptzin on the Occasion of His 85th Birthday, edited by Mark H. Gelber, Peter Lang, 1986, pp. 89-99.
[In the following essay, Boyarín discusses Aleichem's narrative technique as evinced in his short story "Stantsye Baranovitsh."]
Sholem-Aleykhem's works bridge the gulf between us and the world he evokes. That gulf, immeasurably deepened by the Holocaust, was already evidenced by the distinction between the Russian-speaking author, Sholem Rabinovitsh, and the Yiddish persona "Sholem-Aleykhem." One aspect of Rabinovitsh's enduring genius may be identified as the awareness of the break between the world in which live storytelling was commonplace and the world in which Rabinovitsh lived, and his consequent creation of unique artifices—such as the Sholem-Aleykhem persona1—to bridge the gap without denying it.
Walter Benjamin's essay on "The Storyteller"2 may help a reader to appreciate Sholem Rabinovitsh's art. Perhaps central therein is Benjamin's observation that "[one] listening to a story is in the company of the storyteller." The auditor is thus linked to the characters, setting, and events of the story by the narrator. The narrator shares something of himself as he tells the story. A live storyteller may use rhetorical devices to place himself within his tale as...
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SOURCE: "Sholem Aleichem: Mythologist of the Mundane," in AJS Review, Vol. XIII, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Fall, 1988, pp. 27-46.
[In the following essay, Roskies examines Aleichem's use of mythology in his short fiction and places his work within the context of Yiddish literature.]
What could be more obvious for a writer who called himself How-Do-You-Do than to place folklore and folkspeech at the center of his work? After all, it was his childhood friend Shmulik who had inducted him into the world of storytelling; ever since then, the celebrated author could have mined the treasures of Jewish myth and legend as his natural legacy. But Shmulik's formative role in From the Fair was as much a fiction as the name Sholem Aleichem itself, which masked the true beginnings of a typical Russian-Jewish maskil named Rabinovitsh.1 Everything in the program of the Haskalah, as in Sholem Rabinovitsh's early career, militated against the discovery of folklore: the overwhelming antipathy of the Jewish Enlightenment to fantasy, superstition, and folk custom;2 Rabinovitsh's concern for fostering a highbrow literary culture in Yiddish based on the realistic portrayal of poverty, on social satire and stylistic discipline;3 and, perhaps most importantly, the young writer's adulation for the arch-maskil Abramovitsh-Mendele, who embodied this new critical standard.4 When, along with...
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SOURCE: "Extra-Legal Disabilities, Raids, Pogroms and Other Forms of Hostility," in Sholom Aleichem: The Writer as Social Historian, Peter Lang, 1989, pp. 65-84.
[In the following excerpt, Halberstam-Rubin asserts that Aleichem's short stories demonstrate how ignorance, prejudice, and violent physical attacks affected the day-today lives of the Jewish people in his time.]
The focus of this [essay] is the illustration of the ways Sholom Aleichem captured and illuminated such historical phenomena as raids, pogroms, the blood-libel and other forms of Jew-baiting. These "extra-legal" hostilities paralleled and were related to the formal, anti-Jewish legislation such as the residential and occupational restrictions. As in the case of the legal problems, the author enables us to "participate" in some of these events and to gain an understanding of their impact upon all concerned, especially the victims. The most detailed account of the developments surrounding the phenomenon of the pogroms is given by Dubnov to whose evidence of the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II we shall return.1
Raids—expeditions to catch and deport illegal residents in the large cities after the May Laws of 1882—were frequent occurrences. Thousands were caught and expelled from the cities.2 The passage below describes a raid probably witnessed by Sholom Aleichem who himself lived illegally...
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SOURCE: "Sholom Aleichem: Pain and Laughter," in Lasting Impressions: Selected Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1990, pp. 11-15.
[In the following essay, Pritchett favorably assesses Aleichem's humor and storytelling ability.]
Sholom Aleichem is one of the prolific masters of Yiddish comic storytelling, an art springing from the oral folk traditions of Eastern Europe and crossed by the pain and laughter of racial calamity. Like all comics he is serious, has one foot in the disorder and madness of the world and, as a Jew, the other foot in the now perplexing, now exalted, adjuration of the Law and the Prophets. Did God really choose their fate for the Jewish people? If so, was He being irresponsible, or why doesn't He make it clear? There is no answer. The oppressed stick to their rituals and are obliged to perfect the delights of cunning, the consolations of extravagant fantasy, the ironies and pedantries of the moralist who is privately turning his resignation into a weapon. With so many insoluble dilemmas on his hands, Aleichem developed that nimbleness of mind and fancy, those skills of masking and ventriloquism, that made him the prolific 'natural' in short tales drawn partly from the remaking of folk tradition, a juggler of puns, proverbs, and sudden revealing images caught from the bewildered tongues of his people.
There are certain distinctions to be noted when we speak of the...
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Aarons, Victoria. Author as Character in the Works of Sholom Aleichem. New York: Edward Mellen Press, 1985, 176 p.
Examines thematic and stylistic aspects of Sholom Aleichem's work.
Butwin, Joseph, and Frances Butwin. Sholom Aleichem. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977, 173 p.
Full-length biographical and critical study focusing on Sholom Aleichem's work.
Gittleman, Sol. "Sholom Aleichem's 'Tevye Stories': The Crisis of Family Life." In From Shtetl to Suburbia: The Family in Jewish Literary Imagination, pp. 54-85. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.
Discusses the traditional values present in Sholom Aleichem's Tevye's Daughters stories.
——. Sholom Aleichem: A Non-Critical Introduction. The Hague: Mouton, 1974, 203 p.
Survey of Sholom Aleichem's works, including biographical background, discussion of major themes, and analysis of their influence on later writers.
Grafstein, Melech, ed. Sholom Aleichem Panorama. London, Ontario: The Jewish Observer, 1948, 415 p.
Collection of essays on Sholom Aleichem's life and work, and translations of his stories, plays, letters, and memoirs....
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